Background of the American Revolution
The barons force King John to sign the Magna Charta, June 15, 1215. Troubles await.
The ravenous and barbarous mercenaries, incited by a cruel and enraged prince, were let loose against the estates, tenants, manors, houses, parks of the barons, and spread devastation over the face of the kingdom.
Magna Charta, Epilogue.
THE barons, after obtaining the Great Charter, seem to have been lulled into a fatal security, and to have taken no rational measures, in case of the introduction of a foreign force, for re-assembling their armies. The king was, from the first, master of the field; and immediately laid siege to the castle of Rochester, which was obstinately defended by William de Albiney, at the head of a hundred and forty knights with their retainers, but was at last reduced by famine [30th Nov 30, 1215]. John, irritated with the resistance, intended to have hanged the governor and all the garrison; but; on the representation of William de Mauleon, who suggested to him the danger of reprisals, he was content to sacrifice, in this barbarous manner, the inferior prisoners only. The captivity of William de Albiney, the best officer among the confederated barons, was an irreparable loss to their cause; and no regular opposition was thenceforth made to the progress of the royal arms. The ravenous and barbarous mercenaries, incited by a cruel and enraged prince, were let loose against the estates, tenants, manors, houses, parks of the barons, and spread devastation over the face of the kingdom. Nothing was to be seen but the flames of villages and castles reduced to ashes, the consternation and misery of the inhabitants, tortures exercised by the soldiery to make them reveal their concealed treasures, and reprisals no less barbarous committed by the barons and their partisans on the royal demesnes, and on the estates of such as still adhered to the crown. The king, marching through the whole extent of England, from Dover to Berwick, laid the provinces waste on each side of him; and considered every estate, which was not his immediate property, as entirely hostile, and the object of military execution. The nobility of the north, in particular, who had shown greatest violence in the recovery of their liberties, and who, acting in a separate body, had expressed their discontent even at the concessions made by the Great Charter, as they could expect no mercy, fled before him with their wives and families, and purchased the friendship of Alexander, the young king of Scots, by doing homage to him.
The barons, reduced to this desperate extremity, and menaced with the total loss of their liberties, their properties, and their lives, employed a remedy no less desperate; and making applications to the court of France, they offered to acknowledge Lewis, the eldest son of Philip, for their sovereign, on condition that he would afford them protection from the violence of their enraged prince. Though the sense of the common rights of mankind, the only rights that are entirely indefensible, might have justified them in the deposition of their king, they declined insisting before Philip on a pretension which is commonly so disagreeable to sovereigns, and which sounds harshly in their royal ears. They affirmed that John was incapable of succeeding to the crown, by reason of the attainder passed upon him during his brother’s reign; though that attainder had been reversed, and Richard had even, by his last will, declared him his successor. They pretended that he was already legally deposed by sentence of the peers of France, on account of the murder of his nephew; though that sentence could not possibly regard any thing but his transmarine dominions, which alone he held in vassalage to that crown. On more plausible grounds they affirmed, that he had already deposed himself by doing homage to the pope, changing the nature of his sovereignty, and resigning an independent crown for a fee under a foreign power. And as Blanche of Castille, the wife of Lewis, was descended by her mother from Henry II. they maintained, though many other princes stood before her in the order of succession, that they had not shaken off the royal family, in chusing her husband for their sovereign.
Philip was strongly tempted to lay hold on the rich prize which was offered to him. The leg-ate menaced him with interdicts and excommunications if he invaded the patrimony of St. Peter, or attacked a prince who was under the immediate protection of the holy see: but as Philip was assured of the obedience of his own vassals, his principles were changed with the times, and he now undervalued as much all papal censures, as he formerly pretended to pay respect to them. His chief scruple was with regard to the fidelity which he might expect from the English barons in their new engagements, and the danger of entrusting his son and heir into the hands of men who might, on any caprice or necessity, make peace with their native sovereign, by sacrificing a pledge of so much value. He- therefore exacted from the barons twenty-five hostages of the most noble birth in the kingdom; and having obtained this security, he sent over first a small army to the relief of the confederates; then more numerous forces, which arrived with Lewis himself at their head.
The first effect of the young prince’s appearance in England was the desertion of John’s foreign troops, who, being mostly levied in Flanders, and other provinces of France, refused to serve against the heir of their monarchy. The Gascons and Poictevins alone, who were still John’s subjects, adhered to his cause; but they were too weak to maintain that superiority in the field which they had hitherto supported against the confederated barons. Many considerable noblemen deserted John’s party, the earls of Salisbury, Arundel, Warrenne, Oxford, Albemarle, and William Mareschal the younger: his castles fell daily into the hands of the enemy; Dover was the only place which, from the valour and fidelity of Hubert de Burgh the governor, made resistance to the progress of Lewis: and the barons had the melancholy prospect of finally succeeding in their purpose, and of escaping the tyranny of their own king, by imposing on themselves and the nation a foreign yoke. But this union was of short duration between the French and English nobles; and the imprudence of Lewis, who on every occasion showed too visible a preference to the former, increased that jealousy which it was so natural for the latter to entertain in their present situation. The viscount of Melun too, it is said, one of his courtiers, fell sick at London, and finding the approaches of death, he sent for some of his friends among the English barons, and, warning them of their danger, revealed Lewis’s secret intentions of exterminating them and their families as traitors to their prince, and of bestowing their estates and dignities on his native subjects, in whose fidelity he could more reasonably place confidence: this story, whether true or false, was universally reported and believed, and, concurring with other circumstances which rendered it credible, did great prejudice to the cause of Lewis. The earl of Salisbury, and other noblemen, deserted again to John’s party; and as men easily change sides in a civil war, especially where their power is founded on an hereditary and independent authority, and is not derived from the opinion and favour of the people, the French prince had reason to dread a sudden reverse of fortune. The king was assembling a considerable army, with a view of fighting one great battle for his crown; but passing from Lynne to Lincolnshire, his road lay along the sea-shore, which was overflowed at high water; and not chusing the proper time for his journey, he lost in the inundation all his carriages, treasure, baggage, and regalia. The affliction for this disaster, and vexation from the distracted state of his affairs, increased the sickness under which he then laboured; and though he reached the castle of Newark, he was obliged to halt there, and his distemper soon after put an end to his life [October 17, 1216], in the forty-ninth year of his age, and eighteenth of his reign; and freed the nation from the dangers to which it was equally exposed by his success or by his misfortunes.
—David Hume, The History of England.